Thursday, August 2, 2007

Puddles, ponds, lakes and oceans

Young companies often remind me of an untied, just-released, rapidly swirling (in which direction, who knows), wall-bouncing helium balloon. Full of energy and potential, primed to soar. Unfortunately, helium balloons run out of fuel and – with a somber/morbid squeak – succumb to gravity. It’s somewhat like chaperoning a team of four-year-olds to the Jelly Belly factory … they bounce and fly in every which way, ultimately crashing in their homeward-bound car seats when their sugar high wanes.

Young companies that persevere boast a little helium – oftentimes held in reserve until the right moment – but are more like inflatable punching bags (I call them Wham-Its), lifesize, well-anchored objects facing in one direction and able to withstand (and bounce back from) a punch with a smile on their face. Wham-Its are patient, focused and resilient.

I enjoyed a candid post from Peter Rip this morning, detailing the derailing (and rerailing) of a young company. It reminded me of previous entries herein about focus and simplicity, along with our inference to sausage making, the messy inner workings of a startup. Here’s a bit of Rip’s rip:

I figure the only authentic thing to do is to talk about this again, even when it is in an ambiguous period of re-birth. This ugly period is a re-tooling of the premise of the business to give it more clarity of purpose. It’s not fun being in the sausage phase.

First, let me admit we went down a mashup rat hole. We have a general technology for snapping together web services. "Because they can" is an insufficient answer to "why do people want to create mashups?" We failed to commit to solve a specific problem for a specific market, preferring instead the broad appeal of generality. This has changed.

No one led us down this rat hole. We led ourselves. When we realized we had to make a radical shift, we had to reignite the fire with limited fuel. We made personnel changes because the fuel demanded it, not to penalize or blame anyone. So we did the right thing. We cut, refocused, questioned everything, and sharpened our edge.

The first thing we did was toss out any pretense of solving everyone’s problem. There is an old proverb that I just invented for this situation -- “The boiling of the ocean begins with a single puddle.” We had to define our puddle. So we did.
Too often young companies agnostically and horizontally approach a market: We’re going to solve all of these problems for all of these customers in all of these markets. It’s a Wham-It-popping prescription; it is hard enough for a young company to solve one problem for one customer in one market, let alone curing the world’s ills. How do you do this? For starters, work directly with – and listen intently to – a specific, referenceable, amenable customer. Focus on getting it out there, even if you do so for free. The true value is not the $$ you receive for the sale, but rather the validation you earn for creating a solution that solves a specific problem in an identifiable puddle. Paying customers will come and the puddle will grow.

Rip continues:
Along the way we re-learned something. Name your user. Ask her what she wants; she will tell you, and often she will surprise you. So we did and they did. One clear consequence is that you will see more emphasis on a configurable application, not a bucket o'widgets that snap together. Leading with "it's so easy to build what you want" is like making a diet fun – it is still a diet, no matter how much more fun it is. You only do it when you must.

So now the Company is heads down executing what we think is a re-jiggering of the basic components. We are packaging to solve a problem - not all problems. Nor are we packaging to provide “examples” of how you can use Teqlo to solve a problem. Nope. We have picked a customer, listened to what they want, and are hacking away to get to market.

We now have an Emily in mind, a clear sense of who our natural distribution partners are, what’s in it for them, and how this little puddle becomes a pond and then a lake. We dream of an ocean, but are navigating the puddle.

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